Getting back on course…

Tomorrow morning Week 4 of the semester begins! I’m teaching two graduate-level classes. Each meets once a week for 3 hours. You might think that means that I’ve had 9 contact hours so far with each class … but you would be quite wrong.

Thanks to Hurricane Irma, which thankfully only skirted our local area and left minimal (compared to last year’s Hurricane Hermine and Irma elsewhere) damages and power outages, the university closed for 6 business days. From Friday of Week 2 through Friday of Week 3, classes were canceled. For my Tuesday class, that was a loss of 3 classroom hours. For my Friday class, a loss of 6 hours. In fact, we’ve only met once! (Hi EME6476 students – aren’t you glad I kept you for the full 3 hours during Week 1?). Continue reading

Thoughts on online course design, teaching, and learning

I was recently notified — appropriately enough while at the e-Learn conference — that I have been selected to receive an award from my university’s Office of Distance Learning. This award, for Excellence in Online Course Design, will be made during National Distance Learning Week.

One of the award’s criteria involves being evaluated against the Quality Matters rubric. I’m proud to say that I met the criteria despite having designed the course without ever having reviewed them. But then again I teach instructional design, so that would (ideally) be the case, right?

As part of the award experience, I was asked to come in for a video shoot and answer some questions about my experiences with online learning. I believe there will be a video of the awards winners (and perhaps others?) playing at some point during the award ceremony.

I was provided with the questions the week before the video was shot. To prepare for the video, I sat down and typed out my answers to the questions. I enjoyed the process, which gave me a chance to really reflect on my own experiences. I’m not sure how effectively I hit these points on the video itself (I wasn’t reading my answers, but rather giving a live, unscripted response), but since I actually had my responses typed up I figured I might as well post them here:

How did you utilize the online course environment to engage your online students?

I focus heavily on communication and interaction in my online courses.

Although I don’t think the online and face-to-face classrooms should really be compared – they’re like apples and oranges – for me the essence of the face-to-face classroom has always been that it’s a space to work through ideas and engage with others. I want my online course environment to be the same kind of space.

I require students to interact with me and with each other through discussion. Together, we work through core concepts related to the course. We construct and deconstruct examples. We clarify muddy points, and intentionally muddy points that on the surface seemed clear. I require students to share work and provide each other with feedback. I communicate with them on the discussion board, taking the role of an expert co-learner. I share, I probe, and when necessary I provide extra bits of instruction.

I use bi-weekly synchronous sessions, which are recorded for those who can’t make it live, to give students the chance to interact with me in real time. Rather than giving a standard lecture during those sessions, I tend to speak about relevant current events, work through examples, or address misunderstandings or interesting tangents that pop up on the discussion board.

Note that I’ve not yet mentioned course materials. That’s intentional. In my view, course materials are just that – materials. They provide information, and give us a starting baseline for learning. They provide fodder for discussion. Some texts, graphics, or videos may communicate concepts better than others, and ideally I’d like to think that I choose or design (whatever the case may be) the best of them to incorporate into my classes. However, sometimes there is no “best” or “ideal” that is readily accessible. Also, “best” can, itself, be rather subjective and context-specific, and “not great” can often provide a superb launching point for discussion. So, whether the materials used in a class are the best or the worst, what matters most to me is the way that we use those materials in the class.

What is the most challenging aspect of teaching online? What is the most rewarding?

For me, the most challenging aspect is the silent students. I am, by nature, a communicator. In a face-to-face class, the students who do not speak much at least provide visual cues – body positions, glances, and gestures – that show how they feel and whether they’re paying attention, struggling to understand a concept, etc. Online, it’s much more difficult to differentiate the quiet student who understands the course material quite well from the disengaged student from the student who is struggling but fearful of saying something.

The other challenging aspect – and this may be magnified by teaching instructional design students – is what I call design laid bare. In other words, your course design is visibly posted from the start of the class in front of the students, where it can readily be critiqued and questioned. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It pushes me to plan my courses thoroughly and at times raises some interesting discussions of alternate ways in which a course topic might be taught online.

The most rewarding part of teaching online is getting to know my students so well and see their learning process unfold week after week, documented via our course interaction and communication tools. The discussion board is like a window into their minds in some ways. I get to know the students so well by reading their ideas in the discussion, and I believe strongly that the process of writing out their ideas – as opposed to speaking off the cuff in a synchronous setting – really pushes a deeper understanding of the course material for some students.

I also find that I’m more readily able to individualize courses for online students, or track them in groups with like interests. So, a class with 30 students who have interests in K-12, higher ed, and corporate learning can be split into conference-like tracks and have more focused discussions each week.

Finally, the biggest reward is when an online learning skeptic tells me that after taking my course he or she understands the value of online learning.

Please describe the project or course that was recognized for the award you’ve received (Excellence in Online Course Design)

The course is Mobile Learning, EME5077. In this course, student learn about the basic definitions, pedagogies, and technologies used to support mobile learning and the process to design mobile learning activities. Through the assignments, they get to design ebooks and QR-code based learning activities and create prototypes of a learning app.

Discuss some of your methods for designing your online course. How did organization and design impact the quality of your course?

When I design a course I focus on four main things:

  1. Alignment of objectives, course content, learning activities and assessments
  2. Opportunities for peer feedback and interaction
  3. Opportunities to interact with the instructor
  4. Consistency from week to week and assignment to assignment

Typically I create both a content roadmap and communications plan for the course.

The content roadmap helps me get an overview of how the content, learning activities, and assignments fit together and helps me determine the best sequencing for the course.

The communications plan helps me visualize the overall participation workload, the points at which students become interdependent for completing assignments, and the ways in which I plan to interact with the students.

In the Mobile Learning course, for example, I included:

  • weekly announcements
  • weekly discussions for most weeks of the course
  • bi-weekly synchronous sessions
  • student contributed “tech smackdowns” during some of the bi-weekly sessions
  • personalized pulse-check emails at the 1/3 and 2/3 points
  • peer critiques using VoiceThread

The key is to find the right amount of interaction and communication, knowing that students will desire and take advantage of it to varying extents and that it has be manageable or it cannot be sustained.

There’s also a small bit of my courses that I consider to be designed for serendipity or intentionally undesigned. I find this to be particularly important when teaching adult learners. In other words, I want to be prepared to incorporate my students’ interests and experiences, events and opportunities that arise, and current events into the class experience to keep it as up-to-date and relevant as possible. That intentionally undersigned element also keeps the course really interesting for me each time I teach it.

Did the design process cause you to rethink any strategies in your other classes?

Every course design and teaching experience influences the subsequent ones, whether face-to-face or online.

One thing I’ve clearly learned in the context of teaching online is the value of planning personal pulse-checks with the students. In a campus class, just as in an online class, students can feel isolated or as if they lack a connection to the professor. They may be shy about articulating the challenges or struggles they’re experiencing. My pulse-check emails invite students to share with me what’s working and not working for them personally. It takes far less time to do this than you might think. Most students indicate they’re doing fine and the conversation goes no further. The others, who say more, either provide me with positive feedback, which motivates me to keep going, or indicate areas where they need help or the course might be improved. Those messages open dialogues through which I can help students identify strategies that will improve their course performance or explain why the course is designed in a particular way. Sometimes they give me ideas for ways in which I might change course materials, activities, assessments or policies. I get far more useful feedback in this format than I do on end-of-course evaluations.